(CNN Business) – After 53 years and more than 1,570 aircraft, the last Boeing 747 rolled off the assembly line in Washington state Tuesday night, on its way to becoming a freighter.
The innovative jumbo jet, with its distinctive bulge on the second deck, is perhaps the most iconic and popular aircraft Boeing has ever built. It was even big enough to carry the space shuttle from the California runways to the launch site in Florida. And a new type of spacecraft will launch Virgin Orbit next week, having taken it under its wing.
The 747 was once the choice of the glamorous rich and even royalty. In several films, including the 1973 James Bond classic “Live and Let Die,” aircraft have appeared, or first-class lounge-like sets on the upper level. The 747 has been Air Force One since 1990. Two aircraft already assembled will become the next generation of Air Force One. These aircraft will not be delivered for at least four years due to delays.
Other than that use, the 747’s days as an airplane are almost completely over. Airlines are moving away from fuel-guzzling four-engine jets like the 747. Rival Airbus ditched its two-level A380 jumbo jet in 2019.
Boeing had indicated in 2020 that it would stop manufacturing the 747, even in its freighter form, as customers bought the more fuel-efficient 777 Freighter or saved money by retrofitting older passenger 747s as freighters. The company has yet to announce its plans for the Everett, Washington, plant where it builds the 747, but it hopes to keep it open. To build the massive aircraft, the facility would have an area of nearly 6 million cubic metres, making it, according to Boeing, the largest building in the world by volume.
Passenger versions of the aircraft can carry between 400 and 500 passengers, twice as many as Boeing’s current widebody, 787-8 Dreamliner. But Boeing hasn’t built a passenger version of the 747 since it last delivered one to Korean Air in 2017. The last 747 will go to Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings, which will operate the plane for Swiss logistics company Kuehne + Nagel. The last plane will go to another Boeing shop for paint and other final details before it is delivered to Atlas early next year.
There are only 44 passenger versions of the 747 left in service today, according to flight analysis firm Cirium. More than half of them, 25, belong to Lufthansa.
That total is down from the more than 130 aircraft in service at the end of 2019, before the pandemic dampened demand for air travel, especially on international routes where the 747 and other aircraft were primarily used. Most passenger versions of the planes were grounded during the first few months of the pandemic and never returned to service.
But there are still 314,747 freighters in use, according to Cirium, many of which were initially used as passenger planes before being refitted as freighters.
“The 747-8 is an incredibly capable aircraft, with capability unmatched by any other freighter in production,” UPS said in 2020, when Boeing indicated it would stop building the aircraft soon. “With a maximum payload of 139 tons, we use it on long, high volume routes, connecting Asia, North America, Europe and the Middle East.”
The current version of the 747 is 76.25 meters long, the longest commercial airliner currently in service, or about twice the length of the Wright brothers’ first flight. The wingspan is 68.3 meters.
Boeing delivered the first passenger 747 in December 1969 to two companies that no longer existed: TWA and Pan Am. Delta Air Lines was the last US carrier to fly a passenger version of the plane, also in 2017. The most recent passenger flights of the American 747 – Delta and United – have attracted huge crowds of fans of the plane, evidence of its enduring popularity.
CNN’s Jackie Wattles contributed to this report.
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